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Life Lessons: Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur

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It was the Medieval times and King Arthur had married his wife Guinevere and his father in-law gave Arthur the Round Table that can let 150 of Arthur's Knights Sit around it. Genevere would watch Arthur’s men when they were going to battle and she would reward the men who had done well in battle. Then, she had punished the men that didn’t do well in battle. Morgan Le Fay Arthur's sister had betrayed him, when she tried to kill him because he had killed a lady she had loved. With her magic she had tried to get her revenge and kill him with it. Arthur had met a sorceress named Nineveh who had known what kind of magic Morgan Le Fay tried to kill Arthur with. Before she could, Nineveh had stopped her.

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King Arthur is known as one of the most popular legends of all time. There are a number of stories and pieces of literature written about King Arthur's reign. The most popular and historical story about King Arthur's death is a prose piece written by Thomas Malory entitled Le Morte D'Arthur. This work was first published in 1485. Although King Arthur tried to maintain structure and order as a king, betrayal by the people closest to him eventually led to his demise. Arthur was born to King Uther and a woman named Igraine. His mother was married to another man. Arthur grew up with his foster father Sir Ector in secret. A magician named Merlin suggested it would be better if no one knew Arthur was the son of the King. Arthur served as squire for his foster brother and eventually became king because he pulled a sword from a stone. While he was king, Arthur was successful in defeating many enemies. King Arthur then decided to help others who needed assistance along with his Knights of the roundtable. Merlin, a wise magician, helped Arthur in battles throughout Arthur's life. One of Arthur's best knights, Lancelot fell in love with King Arthur's wife Guinevere. Lancelot tried to resist his feelings for the queen by going on several quests to find The Holy Grail. Lancelot was unable to resist his desire for Guinevere and continued his affair with her; this eventually led to the downfall of Arthur's kingdom. King Arthur wanted to punish his wife and his knight for their affair and planned to burn his wife at the stake. Lancelot saved Guinevere from her death. One of Arthur's knights, his son Mordred, wanted to become king and encouraged King Arthur to battle Lancelot. Mordred convinced everyone that King Arthur died in battle and Mordred overtook the throne. When King Arthur discovered his son's betrayal, he went home to reclaim his throne. While in battle with his son Mordred, King Arthur died and Mordred was also fatally wounded. After his death, King Arthur's body was sent on a boat down the Isle of Avalon, never to be seen again.

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The character of Merlin is an example of how magic could realistically coexist with the Arthurian world. Merlin is wise and experienced from his years as a sorcerer, but he is far from perfect. Jack Fritscher, Ph.D. says of Merlin, “Neither devil, nor man, nor god, Merlin wears the masks of all three. He is equally capable of the miraculous feats of heroes and gods, or the undignified failings of devils and men. Empowered with extraordinary perceptions, he is also enfeebled, as in his lust for Nynyve, with weaknesses common to men” (Fritscher 3). Although Merlin is “popularly conceived as the epitome of the supernatural” (Fritscher 3), Merlin is also part human, which is where Malory ties a believable amount of reality into the story. Merlin’s supernatural nature does not equal a heavenly nature. Although we know him to be wise and cunning, he is as flawed as any fully human character in the stories. For example, he blindly teaches Nynyve all that he knows, and she traps him a cave sealed with a magic stone. Although Merlin knew that he would die by being buried alive, he is powerless to stop it, and his own magic is useless in attempting to free himself from his grave. Merlin’s story serves to show how magic, as an ideal element that may have done great good in the Arthurian world, has failed. While Merlin is certainly the most popular magical character in the Arthurian tales, other characters in Le Morte D’Arthur also have mystic powers. Merlin, who was undeniably an ally of King Arthur, departs early in the story, leaving way for characters such as Morgan la Fay, the Lady of the Lake, and Nynyve to be the main magical personalities. According to Jack Fritscher, Morgan la Fay, the Lady of the Lake, and Nynyve are three highly supernatural characters. Each associate, for good or ill, with a particular character: Morgan with Arthur, the Lady with Lancelot, Nynyve with Merlin (Fritscher 3), who is the agent of Merlin’s demise. Myra Olstead of Folklore magazine says of these women: “Arthurian enchantresses generally react only to specific insults, and are seldom jealous of a mortal maiden’s beauty unless she interferes with their own designs.

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In the long run, the work mirrors the time in which it was written when the unity of England under a king like Henry V during the 100 Years’ War splintered in the factions of the War of the Roses. The unity of Camelot is broken in the same way by Lancelot’s and Guinevere’s betrayal and Arthur’s weakness to do anything about it; in the end, the kingdom is destroyed. Malory never says that Arthur has died, however; only that he has gone to Avalon to be healed of his wounds. Le Morte D’Arthur has continued to be so popular because, finally, it is a story of hope.

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Holbrook, S. E. “Nymue, the Chief Lady of the Lake, in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.” Speculum 53.4 (1978): 761-777.

Fritscher Ph.D, Jack. When Malory met Arthur 1 Jan 1967. Loyola University Library, Chicago IL. 1-3.

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Life Lessons: Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur
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